As they trek up to their father’s house in the Pacific Palisades, the three grown Pfefferman children are joking about why they’ve been summoned by their divorced dad (Jeffrey Tambor). Is it cancer? Is he announcing his engagement to one of his young girlfriends, who all seem to be named Marcy?
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“Goldberg, Kaplan,” they make rapid-fire jokes about Jewish last names.
“What was that one – Rabinowitz, Rubishnowitzshitzlitz?”
“Marcy Kristallnacht, Belsonberger?” Sarah, the eldest, mock spits out.
That won’t be the first Holocaust reference in “Transparent,” Jill Soloway’s new half-hour comedy show on Amazon Prime, beginning September 26, nor the only instance of Jewish humor either. “I write from a place of truth, and I write my own story – I live in a very Jewish world,” says Soloway, best known for “United States of Tara” and “Six Feet Under.”
By the way, in case one can’t tell from the title: It’s not cancer. Mort has summoned his clan over to tell them that he’s transgender – he identifies as a woman – but he can’t bring himself to do it, not yet.
“They are so selfish,” Mort/Maura tells the support group later at the LGBT center. “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves.”
Is this how it played for Soloway, when her own father (“parent,” she corrects me) announced he was transgender, three years ago?
Even though it was that revelation that inspired the show, she says, “I try not to talk about my own parents’ experience.” And while most media want to discuss gender issues – in addition to the “trans” issue here, Sarah, the married eldest, starts an affair with her lesbian girlfriend from college, and Ali, the youngest, seems confused about her sexuality – what strikes me most is how this series seems so very Jewish.
“It’s absolutely a very Jewish family,” Soloway agrees.
But it’s a certain type of Jewish. An L.A. secular type of Jewish. People who order their weekly bagel-and-schmear takeout from Canters deli, but whose overbearing mother (Judith Light, playing the only stereotypical Jewish character here: a whiny yenta) can tell if one order has been changed. People who aren't sure if their relatives were in concentration camps (but still propose using a ring that might have been saved from there anyway).
“The Jewish experience you normally see [in the media] is black-hat Orthodox Jews,” Soloway says, noting that her own media image of Jews is one of people who strictly observe Shabbat by not using money or turning on lights. But the characters in the 10-episode show are more like the ones she knows. “I guess you could call them ‘bad Jews’ ‘Jewy’ ‘Jew-ish,’ ‘Jewish-ish,’” she riffs. “It’s revisiting what it means to be Jewish.”
Soloway, 39, herself revisited what it meant to be Jewish only in the last decade. She grew up in Chicago in a mostly secular Jewish family, attended a Conservative day school for a few years, and experienced what she calls a “very vibrant community.”
“I do feel like I missed out on having a deeply meaningful and spiritually authentic way of looking at the world,” she explains.
She discovered that connection in 2005 when attending Reboot , an organization that helps Jewish creative types reconnect to the “conversation about what it means to be Jewish” and initiate various projects.
Afterward, Soloway co-founded East Side Jews, “an irreverent, upstart, nondenominational collective” on L.A.’s East Side, whose hundreds of members decided to “do Judaism” as Reboot inspired them to – where, as she puts it, “Shabbat can be anything, High Holidays can be different than the usual Jewish experience.” (For Rosh Hashanah, they’re organizing an event called “Down to the River” for tashlich – a ceremony in which Jews symbolically cast off their sins into a body of water – which will combine “music, ritual, food, drink, reflection and contemplation to help us let go of the previous year as we prepare to embrace the new one.”)
Soloway says that younger Americans are reinventing everything – their relationship to food, to business, to their bodies – so it’s no surprise that people want to reinvent their spirituality. Her Israeli friends tell her that American Jews are so much more interested in Judaism than Israelis, but that’s why she thinks “Transparent” will appeal to an Israeli audience. “The show is a real window into people who feel in conflict with their legacy, to Judaism – their inability to make it matter in their life day to day.”
There are “just a million Jewish things in every episode of 'Transparent,'” she says, pointing out how during the season we’ll see observance of a shivah (traditional seven-day mourning period), a reclaiming of Shabbat, and a whole subplot involving one of the daughters who is trying to organize a bat mitzvah because she’d canceled hers as a kid. (Soloway also didn’t have one – but that’s because she didn’t want it. “We didn’t have a relationship to Judaism. I knew it would have been an experience in throwing a party and getting presents.”)
“Transparent,” is a “very spiritual” show, she affirms. “It’s as much about Judaism as it’s about spirituality and gender.” For her, these phenomena are all intertwined, in what she calls “the binary”: either or good or bad, male or female, Jews or Muslims, right or wrong.
“The show questions the binary; trans people question the binary. Trans-ness demands that people live in the gray. The word ‘trans’ is about traveling the space between the binary. Judaism/feminism/trans politics – they can all really be woven together,” Soloway says. “Living at that ground zero place of otherness is inspiring to me.”